Compass Points North

A brief blossom appeared in the Chinese media in May 1971 that proposed Programme for Anti-Imperialist Struggle. Was here the international lead and guidance that some in the international communist movement had desired from Mao’s China? Referencing the 1970 statement “People of the World, Unite and Defeat the US Aggressors and All Their Running Dogs!”[i] it asserted it had “become a programme for the anti-imperialist struggle waged by the Chinese people together with the revolutionary people throughout the world.”

It voiced the constant refrain that the “danger of a new world war still exists…but revolution is the main trend in the world today.” However it targeted the common enemy as only U.S. imperialism and argued that “revolution is the main trend in the world today”. It identified Indochina as the main battlefield in the world people’s struggle against U.S. imperialism wrongly asserting that “the battlefields in the whole of Indochina have merged into one”. Equally it conflated the struggles in America , describing them rhetorically as “violent revolutionary storms” :

“The people of the United States are dealing heavier and heavier blows from within at U.S. imperialism, the world’s ferocious enemy, – and they have become an important vigorous force in the world people’s struggle against U.S.imperialism.”

This heightened exhaltation and hyperobole full of “fresh victories” contained a solidary reference to “social-imperialism, too, finds the going tougher and tougher.”

This “Programme for Anti-Imperialist Struggle”[ii] clearly stated the strategic line that “the international united front against U.S. imperialism is an important magic weapon for the world people to defeat U.S. imperialism and all its running dogs.”

It was a rhetorical address behind the times, not synchronised to the political compass, a misleading media appearance at a time when China was recalibrating its strategic foreign policy concerns, partly following a report submitted by Four Marshals that assessed the strategic threat to China.

1969, in mid-May, Zhou Enlai at Mao’s behest asked four veteran marshals— Chen Yi, Ye Jianying, Xu Xiangqian, and Nie Rongzhen—to “pay attention to” international affairs. He urged them to meet “two to three times a month” to discuss “important issues” of international security and to provide the CCP Central Committee (CC) with their suggestions.[iii]

Only Mao, Zhou, the four marshals, and their two assistants—Xiong Xianghui, a high-ranking intelligence and foreign service officer and Yao Guang, the director-general of the Foreign Ministry’s Department of European and American Affairs—knew about the study group.

Mao reading the People’s Daily in his study room (Apr 20, 1961)

The tense international context in which they met was for China a war scare.

The four marshals first focused on relations with Moscow just as the Sino-Soviet border clashes were breaking out; although they saw the Soviets as dangerous, they doubted that Moscow intended to launch war against China. The incidents brought the two countries to the brink of a major military confrontation.

Soviet leaders even considered conducting a pre-emptive nuclear strike against China. Henry Kissinger claimed in his memoirs that in August 1969 a Soviet diplomat in Washington inquired “what the U.S. reaction would be to a Soviet attack on Chinese nuclear facilities.” [iv]

Later that year the Western press also reported rumours of Soviet plans to strike at Chinese nuclear bases. The Soviet leadership had a track record: the Brezhnev doctrine provided post-facto justification for Soviet tanks in Prague and regime change to defend “existing socialism”. Whether these overtures reflected actual planning or were merely part of a disinformation campaign to exert psychological pressure on Chinese leaders is uncertain.

When the border fighting intensified in August 1969, marshals Chen Yi and Ye Jianying worried about a confrontation with Moscow and proposed playing the “card of the United States.” [v] In a separate report, Chen proposed high-level talks with the U.S. in order to solve basic problems in the relationship. The ideological confrontation of the anti-revisionist struggle had taken on a new character when it took on the character of conflict between nation states: the Soviet Union by the late 1960s had become China’s number one threat, whereas the United States was perceived as becoming less threatening.

When a group of four marshals recommended that Chairman Mao “play the American card” against the Soviet threat and even undertake high-level talks with the U.S.- to improving relations with the United States—the number one imperialist country- they faced a receptive opponent. Nixon had sent a signal as far back as 1967 in a Foreign Affairs article discussing the need to normalize relations with China, he had written “There is no place on this planet for a billion of its potentially able people to live in angry isolation.”

On the orders of Mao Zedong, People’s Daily published a translation of the full text of Nixon’s inaugural address. In the address, Nixon said,

“Let all nations know that during this administration our lines of communication will be open. We seek an open world–open to ideas, open to the exchange of goods and people–a world in which no people, great or small, will live in angry isolation.”

The report by the Four Marshals’ Study Group provided Chinese leaders with a strategic assessment that emphasized the benefits of improving Sino-American relations. As subsequent developments revealed, the marshals’ reports to Mao and Zhou was the catalyst for important decisions regarding the United States, paving the way for the Sino-American rapprochement.

In an interview with Time magazine in October 1970, Nixon declared that he viewed China as a world power. He observed,

“Maybe that role won’t be possible for five years, maybe not even ten years. But in 20 years it had better be, or the world is in mortal danger. If there is anything I want to do before I die, it is to go to China. If I don’t, I want my children to go.”

Mao set the foreign policy agenda and guidelines on his own: a front page photograph in the People’s Daily intended by Mao as a signal to the Americans (which they missed), on 1 October 1970 (National Day), Mao had journalist Edgar Snow stand by him at the Gate of Heavenly Peace during the parade.

Mao, together with Lin Biao (right) chatting with American journalist Edgar Snow on the top of Tian’anmen Tower (Oct 1, 1970)

Several months later, Snow met with Mao for five hours of talks on 18 December 1970 during which the Chairman was reported as saying:

[T]he foreign ministry was studying the matter of admitting Americans from the left, middle, and right to visit China. Should rightists like Nixon, who represented the monopoly capitalists, be permitted to come? He should be welcomed because, Mao explained at present the problems between China and the US would have to be solved with Nixon. Mao would be happy to talk with him, either as a tourist or as President.

Snow made it public in Life magazine at the end of April 1971.

In sending China’s ping-pong team to Japan and inviting the U.S. team to China in the spring of 1971, Mao overruled the recommendations of the Foreign Ministry. The advent of ping-pong diplomacy – political use of a sport in which the Chinese were world champions, and thus were ‘number one

There were confidence building measures, expressions of friendship and dismantling of isolationist measures (such as recognition of passports) detailed in Yafeng Xia account of the developing renewed relationship between China and America.[vi]

By July 1971 Kissinger was in China in conversation with Zhou Enlai making assurances on Taiwan that the Chinese saw as a precondition for normalization. It opened the way for Nixon’s February 1972 trip.

Yafeng Xia[vii] argued that: Although the radical leftists may have been wary of an abrupt change of policy toward the erstwhile “number one enemy,” the United States, they deferred to Mao’s views and competed for Mao’s favour. Their dependence on Mao’s patronage greatly limited their room to oppose him. Thus, although they were strong supporters of the Cultural Revolution and of radical policies abroad, they were unwilling to confront Mao on policy toward the United States.

Nixon and Jiang Qing during his visit to China in 1972.                           Nixon and  Jiang Qing during his visit to China in 1972.

Throughout this period, Mao made all important decisions regarding China’s policy toward the United States. Chinese documents and memoirs confirm that neither Lin nor other radical leaders played any appreciable role in, or mounted any opposition to China’s policy toward the United States. Western academics argued that the evidence indicates that Lin himself was not opposed to the Sino-American rapprochement. Whatever the convenient charges made after his death, Lin’s flight north after the failed assassination planning is seen as an act of survival not allegiance.

Through Ambassador Huang Zhen in Paris, the Chinese leaders notified Washington that the Lin Biao incident in September 1971 would not change China’s attitude toward the United States and that China would proceed with the preparation for Nixon’s visit.

 China’s changing perception of its national interest’s largely determined Sino-American relations, with the Soviet threats to China, epitomised by the Sino-Soviet border clash in March 1969 and the Soviet-Vietnamese defence treaty in November 1978, facilitated Richard Nixon’s historic trip in 1972 to normalisation of relations in 1979. And the US played the China Card as Soviet third-world interventions, especially in Africa, were also factors in the U.S. opening to China.

The chairman considered Sino-American rapprochement an ultimate success of his long-term struggle against US imperialists, as it compelled Nixon to drop US anti-China policy. Upon hearing Nixon’s triumphant remark that his trip to China ‘changed the world’, Mao, therefore, satirically observed that ‘I think the world changed him’[viii]

Mao’s foreign policy goal as ‘mobilizing the Third World against both the capitalist-imperialist power, the US, and the social-revisionist power, the USSR’. That focus narrowed: In February 1973, he famously urged Kissinger to forge ‘a horizontal line’, consisting of the United States, Japan, China, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and Western Europe, to ‘commonly deal with a bastard’[ix]

Observers schooled in the rhetoric of the Cultural Revolution evoke the anti-Japanese war and alliance with the Kuomintang to couch policy in an ideologically coherent way; tactical united front with a less immediately dangerous adversary (the “secondary enemy”) against a more dangerous foe (the “principal enemy”). For political opponents a “tacit alliance,” as Henry Kissinger characterized it, quickly took shape between Beijing and Washington.[x]  

Some foreign policy concerns and positions that shaped China’s foreign relations were the very public hostility to the intentions of the Soviet Union that identified “competition between the two superpowers” (and promoted the strategic focus of U.S.-Soviet rivalry as in Europe) . China said U.S. economic and political influence in the world had declined. However Superpower rivalry for ‘world hegemony’ had become ‘more fierce’, with détente as ‘camouflage’. China increasingly throughout the 1970s identifying the Soviet Union as the aggressive power. The Chinese kept warning about the peril of potential war: China’s hostile attitude towards détente did not subside even as China’s domestic revolutionary ideology disappeared.

Mao’s well-known theory of the three worlds, first laid out in his talk with Zambian Mao and FriendsPresident Kenneth Kaunda February 1974, symbolised his abandonment of the ‘horizontal line’. In part, the Three Worlds Theory implied a retreat from Mao’s united front strategy against the United States in the 1960s aimed at assisting local insurgents and arousing proletarian revolution around the world. Nor was it simply a focus on the strategic state relations or reiteration of his previous international statements that reflected on “international class struggle.” Arguably the theory’s basis highlighted “development” as a question of fundamental importance for China. In early 1975, with Mao’s approval, “Four Modernizations” (first publicly raised in 1964) re-entered China’s domestic affairs. In a speech at the National People’s Congress the target was set that China should aim to modernize its industry, agriculture, national defence, and science and technology by the end of the century.

September 1977, again restored to leadership, Deng Xiaoping explained that ‘the international situation has undergone many changes; many old concepts and old formulas do not reflect reality, and past strategies are also not consistent with the current reality’. Deng redefined China’s domestic and foreign policies and re-embarked on ‘the great march toward the four modernizations’ with a strategy to modernize China by turning to the West. As Chen Jian’s study of the changing relations between the two countries notes:

“A historical review of the development of Chinese-American relations reveals that during four-fifths of the twentieth century, China and the United States were allies, tacit allies, or constructive partners. Only during one-fifth of the time were they adversaries.”[xi]

Chen suggests that from a Chinese perspective, the global Cold War ended in many key senses during the mid-to-late 1970s. That post-Mao transition in policy explored by Minami (and in line with most observers) concludes “After late 1978, however, Mao’s China was no more”



[i] Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong)

People Of The World, Unite And Defeat The U.S. Aggressors And All Their Running Dogs  Peking Review (23 May, 1970)

[ii] Renmin Ribao (1971) A Programme for Anti-Imperialist Struggle Peking Review No.21 May 21st 1971

[iii] Xiong Xianghui, (1992) “The Prelude to the Opening of Sino-American Relations,” Zhonggong dangshi ziliao [CCP History Materials] No. 42 (June 1992), formerly an aide to Zhou Enlai, had been the secretary to this special study group tasked by Chairman Mao in 1969 to review China’s strategic policy.

[iv] See Kissinger, White House Years Simon & Schuster .2011: 183

[v] “Report by Four Chinese Marshals, Chen Yi, Ye Jianying, Nie Rongzhen, and Xu Xiangqian, to the Central Committee, ‘Our Views about the Current Situation’ (Excerpt),” September 17, 1969, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Zhonggong dangshi ziliao, no. 42 (June 1992), pp. 84-86.

[vi] Yafeng Xia (2006) China’s Elite Politics and Sino-American Rapprochement, January 1969–February 1972 Journal of Cold War Studies Vol. 8, No. 4, Fall 2006, pp. 3–28

 [viii] Personal Experience and Eyewitness Account: Memoirs of Huang Hua. (Beijing: Shijie zhishi chubanshe, 2008).   Quoted in Kazushi Minami (2016): Re-examining the end of Mao’s revolution: China’s changing statecraft and Sino-American relations, 1973–1978,  Cold War History 16:4 (2016): 359-375

[ix] Memorandum of Conversation, February 17–18, 1973, FRUS, 1969–1976, vol. XVIII, Doc. 12. Quoted in Kazushi Minami (2016): Re-examining the end of Mao’s revolution: China’s changing statecraft and Sino-American relations, 1973–1978,  Cold War History 16:4 (2016): 359-375. 

 [ix] Chen Jian. From Mao to Deng: China’s Changing Relations with the United States .CWIHP Working Paper 92 November 2019

[x] Kissinger to Nixon, “My Trip to Peking, June 19-23, 1972,” 6/27/72, Box 851, NSF, Nixon Presidential Material, p. 2, National Archive. Quoted in Chen Jian. From Mao to Deng: China’s Changing Relations with the United States . CWIHP Working Paper 92 November 2019


Mao and Zhou Enlai meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Feb 17, 1973)93780

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